The Stables

Just A Circle?

by Lorraine Jennings

When you read a dressage test how much attention do you give to 20m circles? If you’re like most riders you’ll read ‘20m circle’ and move on. Well, why wouldn’t you? There’s nothing to them is there? Only take a look at an old test sheet. What was the mark for your last circle? 5? 6? If they’re that easy why wasn’t it an 8?!

OK so trotting round and round in circles is dull. But so is anything if you don’t know why you’re doing it! Take a look at the key points a judge is looking for with a 20m circle and you may realise why you’re losing marks. More importantly, you’ll realise how to keep them.

The left hand side of the test sheet tells you what the judge wants you to do. The right hand side tells you what the judge wants to see. (Your score sheet tells you what they didn’t!) So when the test says ‘A – circle right 20m in diameter’ don’t stop there. Look across the page and you’ll see ‘quality of the pace, regularity and tempo. Uniform bend along the line of the circle.’ Sounds great but what does it all mean?

‘Quality of pace, regularity and tempo.’

The first thing to realise is that these three are all part of the same thing. A quality pace has regularity (rhythm) and tempo.

Rhythm is the beat of your horse’s footfalls. Riders often think they have a poor rhythm when actually it’s as regular as clockwork – just a very fast clock! It’s the tempo you need to get right. Tempo is the speed of your rhythm. Nerves have a habit of speeding things up. It’s rare to read ‘tempo too slow’ on your test sheet.

Get into the habit of listening to your rhythm. Avoid listening to every step; that can encourage you to rush. (If you have to count 123,123,123,123 as you’re cantering around the school it’s very easy to hurry) Instead, count every stride. And count from 1 to 4. This avoids the 1,2 of trot and the 1,2,3 of canter. Saying one-two-three-four means you have to listen to your horse’s strides rather than say what you think he’s doing.

Each pace is described as 2, 3 or 4 time. That just means your horse takes 2, 3 or 4 steps per stride. A single stride is the time/distance it takes him to use all four legs.

Sometimes two legs move together but as they move as a pair it’s described as a single step – so trot is 2-time because your horse moves his legs in diagonal pairs (a left hind with a right front/ a right hind with a left front). If you’re counting strides in rising trot you only count every time you rise or every time you sit. If you count steps you count as you rise and as you sit.

Spend whole sessions counting your strides in all paces. It’s something you can do when you’re hacking out too. Get into the habit of it and soon you’ll start to hear when things aren’t quite right. If your rhythm is irregular you’ll hear one two – three – four. There should always be a gap between strides. If your tempo is too fast your regular one-two-three-four will become onetwothreefour.

A quality pace is balanced and has energy. Your body has the biggest effect on your horse’s balance. Lean forward and he’ll do the same and all his weight will fall onto his shoulders. Pull up through your body and look directly ahead – not at the ground 15m up the track) and he’ll sit back on his hocks and stay balanced.

Energy is power not speed. Your contact controls the energy your legs create and stops your horse just getting faster. If your reins are too long you can use as much leg as you like but you won’t bottle up the energy you’re creating and he’ll fall onto his shoulders – as you would if you ran downhill with nothing to hold you back.

‘Uniform bend along the line of the circle’

The most common error on a circle is too much bend to the inside. The judge wants to see that your horse’s body – from nose to tail – fits along the curve of the circle. They don’t want to see his head turned to the inside – or looking back towards his tail! Imagine he was a pipe cleaner and you had to bend him into the shape of the circle. All you’d need to do was push out the middle. Get hold of one end and pull it and you’ll end up with a straight line with a kink in it 1/3 from the top – which isn’t a uniform bend!

Often riders try to pull the front end and push the back end in to create an inside bend but on a circle, your horse’s shoulders and quarters should stay on the line of the curve. His spine should bend around it. A 20m circle isn’t a tight circle and so the bend is very slight. All you need to do is turn your hips and shoulders to the inside and he’ll do the same. That is enough for him to bend – as you will – through his back.

Practise makes perfect

The shape of a circle is important. A circle is a continuous curve that runs between four tangent points. A/C and X are the easy ones to remember – as are E and B when you circle in the middle. The tangent points on each long side are 10m from E/B and 10m from the short side not at K, F, M or H which are only 6m from the short sides. If you’re circling at A or C you should touch and leave the track at these points. If you’re circling at E/B you should be opposite these points as you cross the centre line.

The most important thing to remember when you’re riding a circle is you only touch the track at the markers and tangent points. Get on the track – and get off it. Don’t ride a few strides past them before turning. In a dressage test, this makes a huge difference to your marks for accuracy. Showing the difference between corners and circles makes your test look neat and well polished.

Whatever you do with your body your horse will do with his. Turn your shoulders and hips in line with the curve of the circle and he’ll do the same until you straighten up. Ride the corner before the circle so the judge can clearly see the difference. At the marker turn your body and stay turned until you’ve completed the circle and want to continue. Straighten up and he’ll go straight into the next corner.

A circle needs to have all these things in place to make it correct. It doesn’t matter if you never want to do a dressage test; it’s a sign of good, basic training. If you do compete it doesn’t matter what level you compete at circles come up more than any other shape. Give them the attention they deserve and next time yours may be worthy of an 8.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

In memory of Lorraine Jennings